This is my set book for my University module on Writing and Audience. Most of the course content is contemporary, twentieth-century, accessible: not that nineteenth-century and earlier is inaccessible, it just isn't taught. I've got quite enough to contend with, thankyou, without the old guys. I'll stick to Homer - Simpson, that is.
He writes (p142):
'The key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary. I began learning my lessons in this regard by reading Chandler, Hammett, and Ross MacDonald; I gained perhaps even more respect for the power of compact, descriptive language from reading T.S. Eliot (those ragged claws scuttling across the ocean floor; those coffee spoons), and William Carlos Williams (white chickens, red wheelbarrows, the plums that were in the ice box, so sweet and so cold).'
I certainly agree about the three authors: they have long been favourites (along with Joseph Hansen and Margaret Millar).
But I'm still thinking about the two poets. I do my best with Eliot but so often he just loses me. And Williams can be over-pithy. Then again, if it's descriptive power which is the key, I can see Stephen King's point - his examples in parentheses are familiar to us all, I think. And familiarity must count for something in this respect.
What do others think? Are these two poets the best describers in contemporary poetry? Or are there better candidates - and if so, on what evidence?
Post Edited (09-17-03 09:29)
in the case of stephen king the two poets were the best descibers as far as he was concerned. with poetry, as in music or literature, we all have our favorites from whom we draw inspiration and examples.
Post Edited (09-17-03 09:52)
Agreed, argo: so, who are yours, and what pieces of theirs have stuck in your mind?
Personally, I get butterflies every time I read 'High Flight'.
Unfortunately, he died so young there is no 'body of work' to speak of.
In terms of language Stephen, you might compare Wilfred Owens to Edward Thomas. To my liking Thomas's poetry comes across as more "believable" because of the language he uses. It is simpler, and more to the point.
Contemporary poets ie still writing now - Charles Causley (10 types of Hospital Visitor, Death of an Aircraft), Fleur Adcock (Things, For a Five-Year Old), some Wendy Cope. Contemporaneous with Elliot and Williams (who both died in the 1960s )- definitely de la Mer stands alone, his descriptions in Martha, The Listeners, Silver and The Storm are as vividly evocative as music like Fingal's Cave, the Ride of the Valkyries and Ravel's Bolero.
However, I wouldn't expect to agree with King as I neither read/watch films of his work nor enjoy Eliot (Macavity excepted) or Williams (I've read more poetic shopping lists than his plums 'poem'.) I shouldn't think his taste in music would coincide with mine either.
What's the definition again? Still alive, or any twentieth-century?
Hugh, I don't have a definition in mind, really. The University tutors tend to steer us towards the twentieth century, dead or alive, and draw a vague line somewhere around the first world war. But for the purposes of this thread, perhaps we could start with Eliot's and Williams's dates.
So ... 1880's to 1960's or so then.
Many more, of course.
Top two describers? Tough call, but I'd have to go with Auden and Frost, in that order, with Betjeman a close third.
Frost is definitely on the list and I think Dylan Thomas and Thomas Hardy should be there as well. Thomas' "Poem in October," is beautifully descriptive in easily-understood language. "The Man He Killed," and "Neutral Tones," though very different in scope, are excellent examples of Hardy's clear, precise, yet wonderully descriptive language.
Thanx people. I'm looking for examples: to match Eliot's claws and spoons, and Williams's chickens and wheelbarrow and plums.
Is this really a discussion? Or are you asking for assistance with your homework?
Kipling is good as well.
Linda - Stephen is way ahead of you on this one. He's asking for help with OTHER PEOPLE'S homework (that is, his students).
I'm not that impressed by "This is just to say" (Williams, the plums) as regards DESCRIBING. I mean, he doesn't even tell us what color the plums are! Chickens: white. Wheelbarrow: red. Not that impressive AS description, to my mind.
But can I come up with a better example?
Not at the moment... I'll sleep on it, though.
Auden's Shield of Achilles won't format well here, so lemme put in a link:
I'm not that impressed...
Good point- maybe King is just naming the only poetry that comes to mind. Maybe it's the compressedness that brings these poems to King's mind- the coffee spoons represent a whole way of life.
Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smokestack
robert frost and alfred noyes are good in poetry. in literature I like jack london,robert e howard, and john steinbeck.
As regards The Art of Description, it seems to me -- there are probably books and books about this -- it seems to me that style changes along with society. I'm not getting into a cause-or-effect argument. I mean that in painting, acurate dipiction of what you see gave way to impressionism which gave way to abstraction ... and the same thing was happening in music, and the same thing was happening in literature. Regardless of the underlying symbolism or message, the KIND OF DESCRIPTION in writing (prose and poetry) went through changes.
So in the period when Eliot described fog this way:
.......The yellow fog that rubs its back upon the window-panes,
.......The yellow smoke that rubs its muzzle on the window-panes
.......Licked its tongue into the corners of the evening,
.......Lingered upon the pools that stand in drains,
.......Let fall upon its back the soot that falls from chimneys,
.......Slipped by the terrace, made a sudden leap,
.......And seeing that it was a soft October night,
.......Curled once about the house, and fell asleep.
You really wouldn't EXPECT to find a poem full of explicit descriptions of things. So much for "literal" descriptions.
There's a Dada-ist poem (I think it's Dada-ist, but someone who knows better will correct me if I'm wrong) something like this:
.......The sun shall shine like the sun,
.......And the birds shall sing like birds.
.......The children shall play like children ...
Once that hit the scene, I would expect poets to think twice before using even metaphoric descriptions. And a generation that experiments with "negative capability" will NOT be searching for the perfect string of adjectives to summon up a very specific look or smell or sound.
THIS IS JUST TO SAY ... If "description" is not the forte of 20th century poets, it's not because they're bad at describing. It's because they're going for something(s) else.
Fair point, marian-NYC. But has the wheel turned? For example, my tutor's favourite poet is Billy Collins - is any of his stuff memorably descriptive?
And one of my fellow students (Linda is right as usual; I'm just sneakily getting you guys to help with my homework) has suggested we study The Imagist Movement: anyone know anyhting about that?
My son's favorite description from literature is one he has applied to me:
'He was as tall as a six foot tree.'
He is very much into irony these days.
I disagree with Hugh.
Walking across the Atlantic
I wait for the holiday crowd to clear the beach
before stepping onto the first wave.
Soon I am walking across the Atlantic
thinking about Spain,
checking for whales, waterspouts.
I feel the water holding up my shifting weight.
Tonight I will sleep on its rocking surface.
But for now I try to imagine what
this must look like to the fish below,
the bottoms of my feet appearing, disappearing.
If we are focusing on memorable lines, such as ragged claws, here are a couple of poems that I have found it "hard to get rid of":
The End Of The Weekend
A dying firelight slides along the quirt
Of the cast iron cowboy where he leans
Against my father's books. The lariat
Whirls into darkness. My girl in skin tight jeans
Fingers a page of Captain Marriat
Inviting insolent shadows to her shirt.
We rise together to the second floor.
Outside, across the lake, an endless wind
Whips against the headstones of the dead and wails
In the trees for all who have and have not sinned.
She rubs against me and I feel her nails.
Although we are alone, I lock the door.
The eventual shapes of all our formless prayers:
This dark, this cabin of loose imaginings,
Wind, lip, lake, everything awaits
The slow unloosening of her underthings
And then the noise. Something is dropped. It grates
against the attic beams. I climb the stairs
Armed with a belt.
A long magnesium shaft
Of moonlight from the dormer cuts a path
Among the shattered skeletons of mice.
A great black presence beats its wings in wrath.
Above the boneyard burn its golden eyes.
Some small grey fur is pulsing in its grip.
Travelling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.
By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.
My fingers touching her side brought me the reason—
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside the mountain road I hesitated.
The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.
I thought hard for us all —my only swerving—
then pushed her over the edge into the river.
-- William Stafford
On a very prosaic note, does anyone actually have coffee spoons? I don't. And where do they fit in the tea, dessert, table, pyrex jug scale of measurement?
Apparently, yes. [www.patrickmavros.com] />
Hecht in general is 'hard to get rid of.' I've had 'More Light' running through my head for weeks. And then there's this one-
The Transparent Man
I'm mighty glad to see you, Mrs. Curtis,
And thank you very kindly for this visit--
Especially now when all the others here
Are having holiday visitors, and I feel
A little conspicuous and in the way.
It's mainly because of Thanksgiving. All these mothers
And wives and husbands gaze at me soulfully
And feel they should break up their box of chocolates
For a donation, or hand me a chunk of fruitcake.
What they don't understand and never guess
Is that it's better for me without a family;
It's a great blessing. Though I mean no harm.
And as for visitors, why, I have you,
All cheerful, brisk and punctual every Sunday,
Like church, even if the aisles smell of phenol.
And you always bring even better gifts than any
On your book-trolley. Though they mean only good,
Families can become a sort of burden.
I've only got my father, and he won't come,
Poor man, because it would be too much for him.
And for me, too, so it's best the way it is.
He knows, you see, that I will predecease him,
Which is hard enough. It would take a callous man
To come and stand around and watch me failing.
(Now don't you fuss; we both know the plain facts.)
But for him it's even harder. He loved my mother.
They say she looked like me; I suppose she may have.
Or rather, as I grew older I came to look
More and more like she must one time have looked,
And so the prospect for my father now
Of losing me is like having to lose her twice.
I know he frets about me. Dr. Frazer
Tells me he phones in every single day,
Hoping that things will take a turn for the better.
But with leukemia things don't improve.
It's like a sort of blizzard in the bloodstream,
A deep, severe, unseasonable winter,
Burying everything. The white blood cells
Multiply crazily and storm around,
Out of control. The chemotherapy
Hasn't helped much, and it makes my hair fall out.
I know I look a sight, but I don't care.
I care about fewer things; I'm more selective.
It's got so I can't even bring myself
To read through any of your books these days.
It's partly weariness, and partly the fact
That I seem not to care much about the endings,
How things work out, or whether they even do.
What I do instead is sit here by this window
And look out at the trees across the way.
You wouldn't think that was much, but let me tell you,
It keeps me quite intent and occupied.
Now all the leaves are down, you can see the spare,
Delicate structures of the sycamores,
The fine articulation of the beeches.
I have sat here for days studying them,
And I have only just begun to see
What it is that they resemble. One by one,
They stand there like magnificent enlargements
Of the vascular system of the human brain.
I see them there like huge discarnate minds,
Lost in their meditative silences.
The trunks, branches and twigs compose the vessels
That feed and nourish vast immortal thoughts.
So I've assigned them names. There, near the path,
Is the great brain of Beethoven, and Kepler
Haunts the wide spaces of that mountain ash.
This view, you see, has become my Hall of Fame,
It came to me one day when I remembered
Mary Beth Finley who used to play with me
When we were girls. One year her parents gave her
A birthday toy called "The Transparent Man."
It was made of plastic, with different colored organs,
And the circulatory system all mapped out
In rivers of red and blue. She'd ask me over
And the two of us would sit and study him
Together, and do a powerful lot of giggling.
I figure he's most likely the only man
Either of us would ever get to know
Intimately, because Mary Beth became
A Sister of Mercy when she was old enough.
She must be thirty-one; she was a year
Older than I, and about four inches taller.
I used to envy both those advantages
Back in those days. Anyway, I was struck
Right from the start by the sea-weed intricacy,
The fine-haired, silken-threaded filiations
That wove, like Belgian lace, throughout the head.
But this last week it seems I have found myself
Looking beyond, or through, individual trees
At the dense, clustered woodland just behind them,
Where those great, nameless crowds patiently stand.
It's become a sort of complex, ultimate puzzle
And keeps me fascinated. My eyes are twenty-twenty,
Or used to be, but of course I can't unravel
The tousled snarl of intersecting limbs,
That mackled, cinder grayness. It's a riddle
Beyond the eye's solution. Impenetrable.
If there is order in all that anarchy
Of granite mezzotint, that wilderness,
It takes a better eye than mine to see it.
It set me on to wondering how to deal
With such a thickness of particulars,
Deal with it faithfully, you understand,
Without blurring the issue. Of course I know
That within a month the sleeving snows will come
With cold, selective emphases, with massings
And arbitrary contrasts, rendering things
Deceptively simple, thickening the twigs
To frosty veins, bestowing epaulets
And decorations on every birch and aspen.
And the eye, self-satisfied, will be misled,
Thinking the puzzle solved, supposing at last
It can look forth and comprehend the world.
That's when you have to really watch yourself.
So I hope that you won't think me plain ungrateful
For not selecting one of your fine books,
And I take it very kindly that you came
And sat here and let me rattle on this way.
"The Imagist Movement" was the topic of my mother's doctoral thesis. She was in grad school when I was in highschool, and many was the night I fell asleep to the sound of her typing.
I remember the names that kept coming up: H.D., Richard Altington, John Cournos, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Hueffer (same guy as Ford Madox Ford), Amy Lowell ... The self-proclaimed Imagists published an anthology called DES IMAGISTES which was their debut-anthem-manifesto kind of thing. It's famously hard to find even in libraries, but I just found something on Amazon that MIGHT be an annotated reprint: "Cadences (Des Imagistes Literature of the Imagist Movement Series) by F.S. Flint."
Here's a good blurb from a website:
===The Imagist Movement 1912-1917 - The birth of the Imagist movement was marked by the January 1913 edition of Poetry in which three poems were published by Hilda Doolittle under the pseudonym H.D. Imagiste, and Ezra Pound brashly declared "the Imagistes" to be the newest school. Two months later, Imagism again appeared in Poetry, this time more fully described in a short article by F.S. Flint which contained the movement's three tenets. Following Flint's article was "A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste," an article written by Pound in which he defined the image, the basis of Imagist poetry, as "that which presents an emotional and intellectual complex in an instant of time." Pound's own understanding of the image was rooted in French Symbolism, the philosophy of Henri Bergson, the Chinese ideogram, haiku and the short verse tanka traditions of Japanese poetry.===
And there's more on the website:
Fleur Adcock's 'For a Five Year Old' - I LOVE that poem, Marian!
And Linda, I have a pair of antique silver coffee spoons I received as a wedding gift. My mother's "good" cutlery set includes a full half dozen (but then it also has things like fish knives and berry spoons). They're tiny, and I assume meant to be used with demi-tasses.
Will now go think about description in 20th century poetry.
Thanks, Julia33. This was new to me:
For a five year old
by Fleur Adcock
A snail is climbing up the window-sill
Into your room, after a night of rain.
You call me in to see and I explain
That it would be unkind to leave it there:
It might crawl to the floor; we must take care
That no one squashes it. You understand,
And carry it outside, with careful hand,
To eat a daffodil.
I see, then, that a kind of faith prevails:
Your gentleness is moulded still by words
From me, who have trapped mice and shot wild birds,
Your closest relatives and who purveyed
The harshest kind of truth to many another,
But that is how things are: I am your mother,
And we are kind to snails.